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Throughout the Colorado legislature’s just-wrapped, three-day special session on COVID-19 relief, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle touted the bipartisan nature of the work they’d done. Indeed, the session’s signature bills all had broad support — and several had lead sponsors whose names you don’t often see together.
On a housing relief bill, Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales, who’s pushed for an extended eviction moratorium, teamed with Republican Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, the former executive director of the Colorado Mortgage Lenders Association. On a relief bill for small businesses, arts organizations and minority-owned enterprises, Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod, an outspoken voice for police reform, teamed with Republican Rep. Shane Sandridge, a former cop. And so on.
The whole point of this session was to provide some financial assistance in the absence of a federal stimulus. Several lawmakers told me ahead of the session that this week would prove — not that it wasn’t already obvious — that this legislature works better together than Congress does.
That’s clearly true.
“The more local the leadership is, the more they feel the dire need on the ground,” theorized Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat and the Senate majority leader, in a call with The Denver Post on Thursday. “There’s no question this assistance is needed, and I think at the Colorado legislature, at least, the vast majority of what we do is bipartisan. It doesn’t always get credit for being bipartisan, but it’s not unusual.”
But this special session also reminded us that deep ideological divisions remain active at the Capitol. Underlying many bill debates was a fundamental disagreement: Republicans generally believe that present COVID restrictions are excessive, and they often referred to the economic devastation here more as a result of action by the state than of the pandemic itself. Democrats are generally comfortable with the leadership of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, economic restrictions and all.
The trade-off of a more open economy and society is more sickness and death. That’s what public health officials across this state and country have told us over and over. And, to put the Capitol division in very simple terms, Democrats clearly fear that prospect more than Republicans do.
That’s not a small thing to disagree on; these are quite literally matters of life and death.
So, too, is it significant that, during the special session, Democrats wore masks consistently while Republicans had a more mixed approach. There were extended periods of time, especially in the House, where one could observe groups of GOP lawmakers in relatively close quarters, unmasked. Let’s hope that wasn’t also a life-and-death decision. Time will tell whether any infections, or worse, result from the special session. With an estimated 1 in 41 Coloradans contagious with the coronavirus, it’s a crapshoot.
Speaking of the special session, scroll down for more takeaways from my Capitol reporting partner, Saja Hindi. Also in this week’s Spot, federal politics reporter Justin Wingerter writes about a major public lands bill.
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U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, chair of the Colorado Republican Party, defended the integrity of the state’s election system in remarks to a conservative online crowd Wednesday night. “I think it’s so important for us to understand that our votes are not being manipulated,” Buck said. But such comments only drew ire from some vocal fellow supporters of President Donald Trump, showing the challenge posed by Trump’s attempts to sow doubt about the election.
Capitol Diary • By Saja Hindi
’A band-aid on a fatal wound’
Colorado lawmakers worked fast — they passed 10 bills in three days of a special legislative session dedicated to COVID-19 relief that wrapped up Wednesday. During an economic recession fueled by a pandemic with surging cases, relief will go to some individuals, families, businesses and nonprofits that are feeling the burden.
“There’s a lot of folks who are struggling to put food on their table, to pay their rent. There’s small business owners who aren’t sure whether they can keep their doors open because of the pandemic and not sure what the next few months bring,” Gov. Jared Polis said during a news conference Wednesday.
So, lawmakers convened to provide more than $300 million in relief funds through bills that addressed hunger, small businesses, housing, utility costs, child care, education and other issues. Still, the Democrats in charge acknowledged repeatedly that, in the absence of federal help, this was a drop in the bucket.
A survey commissioned by Hunger Free Colorado in late July found that 1 in 3 Coloradans were struggling to afford food. Food banks and food pantries have had to step up to fill that need. Now, five months later, the need is even greater.
On Wednesday, the legislature passed a bill that will provide $5 million in grant funding for food banks and pantries, up from an initial proposal of $3 million.
“We’ve seen the number of families seeking emergency food assistance triple since the start of COVID,” said Teva Sienicki, Metro Caring’s CEO, in a statement. “While this bill will help families by putting food on their tables, it’s the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a fatal wound. Coloradans don’t go hungry because there isn’t enough food. Coloradans go hungry because during this health pandemic and economic crisis, there isn’t enough money to put food on the table.”
Metro Caring is an organization that aims to address the root causes of hunger, and Sienicki said relief discussions also should include extending unemployment benefits, providing stimulus checks and expanding SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps.
The Colorado Education Association, a teachers union, expressed a similar sentiment, saying the group would focus its efforts during the next legislative session on addressing budget cuts made to schools because of the pandemic.
“Bills that lift up Colorado’s students, families and educators like the CEA-supported House Bill 20B-1001, ‘Grants to Improve Internet Access in P-12 Ed’ is helpful, yet there is still significant work that needs to be done to address equity and access beyond this bill,” the group said in a statement. “Inequities all across the state, sadly, are the norm and the COVID-19 pandemic has not only shone a spotlight on these inequities but has made them worse.”
More Colorado political news
- Here are the 10 COVID-19 relief bills Colorado lawmakers passed.
- Gov. Jared Polis says prisoners shouldn’t get the COVID vaccine before free people.
- Many Colorado Republicans went maskless during the COVID-19 special session.
- A GOP staffer’s Facebook post about COVID caused panic on the first day of the special session.
Federal politics • By Justin Wingerter
The CORE Act’s still-not-great odds
The CORE Act, a major Colorado public lands bill, now has greater odds of becoming law than at any point since it was introduced by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse last year.
That doesn’t mean the odds are great.
The Colorado Democrats’ bill currently has two paths to passage. The most immediate, and simplest, is for it to be attached to the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual must-pass military bill. A conference committee is currently reworking the defense legislation.
“I’m optimistic, but we still have a lot of room to cover here in the coming five weeks,” Neguse told me in an interview last week. He’s been working the phones and talking with members in hopes of passing it through the NDAA. He and Bennet gamed out strategies in a call one night.
But there’s reason to be skeptical it will end up in the NDAA. Extraneous legislation is shed from NDAAs every year by conference committees, and the Trump administration remains opposed to the CORE Act. So, too, do all Colorado Republicans, including Rep. Doug Lamborn, a member of the conference committee putting together the final 2020 NDAA.
If it is dropped from this year’s defense bill, the CORE Act can be reintroduced next year. It already received a Senate hearing and likely won’t face a veto threat from President-elect Joe Biden. Colorado’s senators, Bennet and Sen.-elect John Hickenlooper, will both be pushing it.
Still, it will require either Senate Republican support or filibuster reform to pass the upper chamber, unless it is attached to a larger bill, such as next year’s NDAA.
“I am optimistic that, with the support of both of our U.S. senators, we’re going to be able to make progress next year, if we in fact don’t get it done in the next five weeks,” Neguse said. “But I’m not closing the door yet — we’re going to keep pushing.”
More federal government news
- Colorado’s congressional Republicans have remained quiet about President Trump’s refusal to concede to Biden. But Congresswoman-elect Lauren Boebert has not.
- In other Boebert news, she can carry her Glock at the Capitol.
- Neguse continues to rise within House leadership. And he wants an antitrust hearing on Big Pharma mergers, CNBC reports.
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